In naming the amateur creators of Web content as its Person of the Year, Time magazine characterized their prominence in 2006 as “a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before.” “Scale” is the crucial word here. The obvious, immediate backstory to the flourishing of user-generated content is simply the collaborative production of Web content that took place on a smaller scale throughout the past decade. The less-recognized, older backstory began a century ago.
Amateurs in the 1910s enthusiastically adopted the medium of two-way radio communication and, through their recreational tinkering with the technology, established new ways of thinking about radio. The activities of the first “hams” (hobbyists who transmit and receive radio signals) prepared the way for commercial radio broadcasting. And the ham community — which members sometimes called a “technical fraternity” — continued to influence American technology into the computer age. Their impact included technical changes at the circuit-board level as well as changing attitudes toward technology, which in turn affected decisions about technical investment, regulation, consumption, and implementation.
Ham radio is just one example from a larger category of technical hobbies. Hobbyists who, for instance, raced miniature airplanes, modified motorcycles, assembled model rockets, shot amateur movies, and built personal computers shared motivations and experiences with ham radio operators. Despite the differences in the apparatus and methods of their hobbies, all broadly enjoyed technicality — technical devices, technical interactivity, and status in separate technical communities — to the point of identifying with technology. They envisioned themselves as “tech” people.
Historically, there were many personal rewards from pursuing technical hobbies. Participants gained skills and a sense of accomplishment, found fellowship in a distinct group, claimed a place in the formidable technical world, reached new self-understandings, and improved career opportunities, all in an enjoyable recreational context. Hobbyists’ experiences with technology additionally had much broader effect. People who worked with technology in their spare time posed a vital counterpart to the prevailing technical culture. Hobbyists engaged with technology in a way that was fun, collaborative, educational, intense, and creative. These methods and values were independent from, and at times in direct conflict with, the technical culture of profit-driven production. Hobbyists caused non-hobbyists to question assumptions about technology.